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Reviews

Amalia Hall with Stephen de Pledge | Regional News

Amalia Hall with Stephen de Pledge

Presented by: Chamber Music New Zealand

Public Trust Hall, 6th Aug 2020

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Being able, in this COVID-riven world, to go to a new Wellington chamber music venue and hear two outstanding New Zealand musicians perform an interesting and varied programme is such a privilege.

Each item in this programme was introduced by either Amalia Hall (violin) or Stephen de Pledge (piano), creating an intimacy appropriate to the repertoire and enhanced by the proportions of the new venue.

The programme ranged from the familiar (Beethoven’s Sonata No. 5 in F major, the Spring sonata) to the new (Gao Ping’s Bitter Cold Night), and from the most classical Mozart (Sonata No. 19 in E flat major) to the very French Saint-Saёns (Sonata No. 1 in D minor). As if this were not variety enough, we also got Gershwin’s jazzy and vibrant Three Preludes as arranged by Heifetz.

As de Pledge told us, the programme was intended to be optimistic and joyful. But it was tempered with contemporary reality by the inclusion of Bitter Cold Night. Gao Ping wrote the work in response to the death of Dr Li Wenliang, the COVID-19 virus whistle-blower. It is a bleak piece, sparse and tentative, eerie at times, but with loud and angry eruptions. I felt that the audience held its breath for this wonderful and intense piece.

The partnership between the players showed to great advantage in Beethoven’s sonata, with de Pledge’s robust but intensely musical playing and Hall’s assertive but sweet violin. The third movement in particular was a delight – jaunty, cheeky, and flirtatious. While all the works were demanding, none was more so technically than the Saint-Saёns sonata. Hall said that the last movement meant that neither player had needed to go to the gym for a while. It is fiendish and hectic, with an absolute frenzy of notes requiring intense concentration. They pulled it off perfectly.

Midnight in Moscow | Regional News

Midnight in Moscow

Written by: Dean Parker

Directed by: Tanya Piejus

Gryphon Theatre, 29th Jul 2020

Reviewed by: Jezelle Bidois

It can go without saying that 2020 has and continues to present obstacles for us all and now more than ever has the need for imaginative escapism become more prevalent. I say that one only need attend Midnight in Moscow to obtain such freedom. Staged at the Gryphon Theatre, this performance sticks New Zealand dead centre between the battling ideologies of communism and nationalism at the tail end of the 1940s. Set in Moscow, the play enraptures each audience member in a world long past; one of espionage, conspiracy, and tragic romances.

The world of Midnight in Moscow is coloured not just by the period-appropriate costuming (Michelle Soper) or effective set design (Rachel Hilliar), but by the brilliant casting. Comprised of five Kiwis and two Russian characters, all the actors contribute to the whole performance’s success. This is seen through Lisa Aaltonen and Paul Stone’s convincing transformations into strapping Russian citizens. Through the observable spectrum of strong New Zealand women manifested by the characters of Sophie (Anna Woods), Madeleine (Nethmi Karunanayake), and June (Stephanie Gartrell). And finally, by the performances of Patrick McTague and Slaine McKenzie, whose posturings and changes in accents effectively transport the viewer to worlds only found in film noirs like Otto Preminger’s Laura and Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past.

I believe the true success of Midnight in Moscow is how well it resonates with the audience. Though Dean Parker’s play is mainly set around the nature of communism against the backdrop of the 1940s, Midnight in Moscow caters for New Zealand’s unique culture and identity. With references ranging from our sporting interests to the stereotypes associated with particular areas of the country, this play provides for our need for adventure without leaving us too lost.

Under Tanya Piejus’s impressive direction, Midnight in Moscow inspires both widespread amusement and deep contemplation. And all those who attend leave more appreciative of things like friendship and the freedom of expression and thought.

Dungeoning & Dragoning | Regional News

Dungeoning & Dragoning

Produced by: Harriet Prebble and Gavin Rutherford

Running at Circa Theatre until 30th Aug 2020

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Full disclosure: when it comes to Dungeons & Dragons, I haven’t the foggiest. I’ve never played the tabletop roleplaying game before and couldn’t understand the appeal of watching other people play it either. After this show I’m happy to report I’ve done a complete 180 and will be seeking out all things D&D as soon as humanly (or elfinly) possible.

In this six-part season, Gavin Rutherford (Gart), Harriet Prebble (Thistle), Allan Henry (Armand), Gabriela Rocha (Kyrrha), and Dungeon Master Ryan McIntyre play one game of Dungeons & Dragons. Because each show is a complete adventure, you don’t need to see all six – but you’ll probably want to. After watching these characters take to the high seas, slice an ogre’s hamstrings, get really drunk, and practically melt Steve’s legs off (poor Steve), it’s safe to say I’m invested. So too are the players, all master improvisors whose passion for the game is palpable.

McIntyre weaves the story together, building entire worlds with words alone. Intuitive lighting (Tony Black) and epic sound design (McIntyre and Black) emphasise the Dungeon Master’s supreme craftsmanship at just the right moments. Rocha’s costume design allows audiences to get a feel for the characters before the game begins, but I’m craving the backstory that’s emerged from hours of playing before opening night. Resources in the foyer illustrate some history, but more of a prologue would help – especially if it included a brief description of how the roll of the dice affects the outcome of the game.

However, I soon pick up that a low roll is bad and a high roll is good. And the Dungeon Master does briefly introduce the characters, he's just drowned out by thunderous applause from the enthusiastic crowd. By the end of Dungeoning & Dragoning, I’m roaring along with them. I’ve been part of a communal experience – the hallmark of truly great theatre, and from what I understand, a great D&D session too. More worlds colliding more often, please.

Houstoun Plays Rachmaninoff | Regional News

Houstoun Plays Rachmaninoff

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 25th Jul 2020

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

I heard it often, people saying “It’s nice to be back.” As Mark Taddei said, Orchestra Wellington may be the first orchestra in the world to resume its subscription series since COVID-19 enveloped us. Still, since the original soloist could not get here, the programme changed. The massive third Rachmaninoff piano concerto replaced the shorter fourth, so for reasons of programme length, we lost the Schumann Manfred Overture to complement the Tchaikovsky Manfred Symphony.

The bonus was having that icon of New Zealand music, Michael Houstoun, as replacement soloist. It was a disappointing night for him; using an electronic score, the technology developed a fault, requiring him to stop the performance and ask for it to be restarted. All credit to all performers; they picked up without fuss and completed the work without another glitch. To the audience it did not detract a jot from their appreciation of his forceful, lyrical, brilliant, and agile performance. He must have been on tenterhooks for the rest of the concerto but the audience was just glad that he too was back!

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony uses a huge orchestra including 12 frequently used brass instruments and a good array of percussion with wonderful opportunities for woodwind to add colour to the scenes being painted. Add in soaring strings, two harps, a chiming bell, and an organ and there you have a recipe for over-the-top romanticism that had my companion gurgling with suppressed laughter at times. It was pretty marvellous. Holding the whole together was the evocative Manfred theme, dominating the first movement in which the despondent anti-hero wanders in the alpine environment, then reappearing in the sparkling, magical second movement where a fairy appears to Manfred, and again as he is cheered by happy bucolic scenes, and then finally in the demonic bacchanal of the fourth movement.

Welcome back, Orchestra Wellington.

The Road That Wasn’t There | Regional News

The Road That Wasn’t There

Written by: Ralph McCubbin Howell

Directed by: Hannah Smith

Circa Theatre, 22nd Jul 2020

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

The Road That Wasn’t There is a story about Maggie (Elle Wootton), who follows maps off the edge of the world, and her son Gabriel (Paul Waggott), who follows maps to real places thanks. Maggie is a child at heart, filled with whimsy and wonder. Gabriel is very much a grownup who stopped believing in magic ages ago. When Maggie’s neighbours and the townsfolk of St Bathans become even more concerned about her behaviour than usual, they call Gabriel home. And there, in his childhood home, Maggie finally tells her son the truth about where he came from.

What a wonderful story we have here. Playwright Ralph McCubbin Howell, who plays a variety of characters with flair and gusto, has mastered a balance of accessibility and complexity. The work is suitable for older children with enough layers and depth to keep the adults engaged.

The Coraline meets A Series of Unfortunate Events vibe I was anticipating doesn’t kick in until a little later; I become entirely engrossed when the show takes a turn for the spooky. Like Gabriel, I finally take off my big kid’s hat and let Trick of The Light Theatre suck me into the mystical world they have created.

The design elements are what really hit this world home. Creepy but cute puppets (Hannah Smith, who directs), dramatic, eerie composition and sound design replete with charming ditties (Tane Upjohn-Beatson), and clever lighting that allows for shadow play (Rachel Marlow) each stand alone as exceptional. Together, they make a complete, cohesive whole at one with the action.

I love that the cast doesn’t stop performing when the puppets come out. Wootton embodies a younger version of Maggie with such conviction, it’s hard to know where puppet ends and human begins. Waggott’s besotted expression when playing puppet Walter melts my heart and plants a huge grin on my face that’s still firmly intact when the show ends.

The Road That Wasn’t There reminds me of just how magic magic is.

Goldberg Variations | Regional News

Goldberg Variations

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, 22nd Jul 2020

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

First published in 1741, JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations was written for harpsichord and has since been arranged differently many times. The NZSO’s interpretation under director Vesa-Matti Leppänen (violin) used a variety of instruments, maximising the musical variation and contrast. The introductory Aria is followed by 30 variations and the depth and complexity of the music and the instrumental variety made the combinations seem endless.

A subtle backdrop of coloured lighting and the movement of players as they joined and left the performance created extra visual interest. As well as a lovely echo of the movement in the music, it was a physical demonstration of the ever-changing instrumental blend and how the variations developed from the theme.

On the fortepiano Stephen De Pledge did a very fine job of coaxing tone and colour from his keyboard. De Pledge spoke briefly during the interval and we learned the difference between the harpsichord and fortepiano lies in plucking versus striking the strings. Bach might not have approved of De Pledge’s relatively modern choice of instrument, but the audience would have disagreed. De Pledge’s technique and style made the best of the possibilities afforded by the softer tone and dynamic control of the new technology.

Every musician was in good form and the reduced numbers on stage (just 18) gave each one of them their moment to shine. Though limited in number, the players explored a full spectrum of rich musical sound. The standout was Carolyn Mills on the harp who had a variation to herself. It is rare to hear a harp so clearly in ensemble play and, with a touch of musical and lighting magic, my view was obscured and it looked like the harp was playing itself.

By the close it was hard to remember this was intended for harpsichord alone. Known for innovation and invention in his own time, I like to think JS Bach might have enjoyed it too.

The King of Staten Island | Regional News

The King of Staten Island

(R16)

137 Mins

(3 out of 5)

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

The King of Staten Island directly addresses today’s youth. Structurally, it sticks to a familiar formula, and like many Judd Apatow films, it outstays its welcome. But its fresh subject matter and seasoned supporting cast keep the laughs coming, even if its star sometimes seems disinterested in doing so.

24-year-old Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson) lives with single mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) and sister Claire (Maude Apatow) on Staten Island, New York City. Scott’s father was a firefighter who died in the line of duty, and he has long suffered from depression. He is pessimistic but ambitious, dreaming of one day opening a tattoo restaurant and practising on his friend’s bodies in the meantime. When Margie starts dating Ray (Bill Burr), another fireman, Scott must face his past head-on.

People who are familiar with Apatow’s comedies will not encounter many surprises; a man-child stuck in his immature ways is forced to grow up. However, the characters driving us towards these beats are defined and fleshed out. Tomei stand outs as Scott’s down-to-earth, empathetic mother, as does Burr, who plays to his strengths and delivers more laughs than anyone. He appears as a natural enemy of Scott’s, and the chemistry between the two actors makes it all the more fun. Smaller players Bel Powley, Pamela Adlon, and Steve Buscemi utilise their minor moments to portray rounded characters.

Scott is much less interesting. His story is a recreation of Davidson’s life in most aspects and as a result, the actor meanders through scenes. What I can appreciate is the willingness to embrace a character battling mental illness. Apatow doesn’t treat it as taboo, simply addressing how this individual is dealing with it and allowing him to poke fun at himself. After a while though, this isn’t enough to sustain my interest. Parts of the plot – such as a scene where Scott joins his friends in robbing a pharmacy – are entirely unnecessary and will force many to check their watch, especially astute viewers who will be able to predict what’s coming.

The Burnt Orange Heresy | Regional News

The Burnt Orange Heresy

(R13)

99 Mins

(2 ½ out of 5)

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

The Burnt Orange Heresy has something to say but no way of saying it. What begins as a compelling critique of the contemporary art scene ends as a flamboyant neo-noir romp. Sadly, the two intentions never effectively coalesce, and the film is forced to rely on a captivating cast to keep us engaged.

Charismatic art critic James Figueras (Claes Bang) and his new fling Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki) visit the luxurious estate of a powerful art dealer, Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger). The true purpose of the alluring invitation is soon revealed; to convince James to steal a painting from Cassidy’s neighbour Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), a world-renowned but enigmatic artist whose work has not been seen for decades.

The film’s saving grace is its cast, particularly Sutherland and Bang. Both portray masked men; one who will admit it, and one who won’t. James uses charm and confidence to hide insecurity and rage. We meet him as he teaches a class that Berenice attends. He analyses a worthless painting at length and suddenly, the entire class wants a print, exemplifying the power of the critic. We know we cannot trust James, but we understand why others do. As the weathered artist, Sutherland brings sensitivity to a role that risks appearing pretentious.

Director Giuseppe Capotondi refuses to lean into a single idea, and this lack of clarity often leaves the frame dull and the narrative stagnant. For a film that barely crosses the hour-and-a-half mark, The Burnt Orange Heresy feels painfully slow at times and rushed at others. The story, based on the book of the same name by Charles Willeford, naturally lends itself to a seductive, stylistic noir, but Capotondi sacrifices this opportunity in favour of something he deems more meaningful – an exploration of artistic authenticity. This doesn’t land, and in turn, the film becomes forgettable.

The Burnt Orange Heresy represents a missed opportunity. A talented cast and a bewitching plot let down by a lack of focus.

Wendy | Regional News

Wendy

(M)

112 Mins

(2 out of 5)

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

Watching Wendy is like diving excitedly into a colourful ball pit only to discover it’s been laced with needles. While director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin’s Peter Pan-inspired tale doesn’t lack originality or flair, its jarring inconsistencies leaves me wondering who it is intended to entertain.

Wendy (Devin France) spends most of her time hanging around her family’s Louisiana diner. She spots a boy leaping between railcars on a passing train and compels her twin brothers Douglas and James to hop aboard. They meet the rambunctious Peter (Yashua Mack), who whisks them off to a magical island and promises they’ll never grow old.

Wendy never lulls, and it thrives in moments where its fantastical world is on full display. Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen grounds the film’s visual style to make the high-concept elements feel otherworldly. This offers a fresh visual take on a story that has been told time and time again, and it works, for the most part. It’s hard to get an audience on board with a giant magical glowing fish, but the combination of Grøvlen’s striking camera work and Dan Romer’s anthemic orchestral score makes it possible.

No matter how pretty the sights and sounds, eventually, I become disconnected with the story. Incomplete characters, unearned tonal shifts, and clumsy dialogue leaves the film too kiddie for adults and too dense for children. In the end, it’s unclear who we should trust or even like – certainly not Peter. Most of the character arcs are undefined; their behaviours change wildly according to what a given scene dictates. In the end, so many ideas are expressed that its final note feels ham-fisted and the story is left at odds with itself.

The imagination and technical prowess on display in Wendy delivers doses of fun, but it trips over too many hurdles to be compelling or satisfying. The emotional beats that are impactful tend to be ripped away moments later. Those entrenched in the adventures of Neverland may appreciate the take, others may forget it overnight.